Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart An Interview with Frank Turner

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South Africa


The foil to my ire against colonialism and its effects comes in the form of Frank Turner. I met him on a gloomy, overcast Sunday afternoon, a few hours before he was set to play at Mercury in Cape Town. In South Africa he has a loyal following, something which surprised him. “I didn’t think anyone was going to know who I was over here, but then loads of people e-mailed and said ‘finally;’ and I was like ‘I had no idea anyone was waiting.’ In case an introduction is in order, Frank Turner is a singer-songwriter from England, who started out in a hardcore band – Million Dead – before embarking on a solo career in folk punk.

“At the time I thought I had a plan and everybody else thought I was mental,” he says, upon reflection of the shift, “and now everybody thinks I must have had a plan and I think I must have been mental…In some ways it was almost like shock therapy for myself, do you know what I mean? It’s like ‘what’s the opposite of being in a hardcore band.’ Well, an acoustic guitar. And then I just tried it and it felt right, to be honest. And I try quite hard not to be calculating or analytical about what I do. You know just do what feels like the right thing…I grew up with punk rock and I think that still informs most of what I do…Also one of the things I like about folk music is the sense of place attached to the music…. So yeah I like my music to be English. Not in any sort of nationalist kind of way, or chauvinistic kind of way. I like to sound like where I’m from, it seems honest to me.”

Hearing Frank Turner’s music was love at first listen, precisely because everything that he says is what you will find in his music. Backed by a tireless energy he has gained a reputation as an incredibly hard-working musician, and has released five studio albums in the past seven years. “I think Tape Deck Heart’s a really dark record,” he explains, when I ask him about his latest album. “I think it’s quite a complicated record; which is weird, because I’m not sure I felt like that when I was making it. And I remember when a lot of the reviews first came out and some said ‘this is really intense and personal,’ I remember thinking, ‘it’s not that bad is it?’ Well not bad, but you know it’s not that intense is it?’ And looking back at it now there are parts of the record where I’m like, ‘did I say that in public? Did I share that with the world?’ But I like it. I think it’s a good record. I feel like it’s a record that I needed to make. It was a very cathartic record to make. It’s quite downbeat and definitely the next one I’m going to make much more sunny. I decided I’m going to make a sunny album. You heard it here first.”

He collaborated with Rich Costey on Tape Deck Heart, a producer who has worked with the likes of Muse and Rage Against the Machine. “The first four records I made were pretty shoestring and produced by friends, who did a fantastic job don’t get me wrong, but it was a little hand to mouth. And then England Keep My Bones did really, really well; and I just sort of had the opportunity to think about working with a producer, which I’d never really done before. And so I was thinking about that and then Rich Costey wandered across my frame of reference, because he’s made about a gazillion albums. If you include the stuff he’s engineered as well, he’s made more records than anybody pretty much, and I got on the phone with him. He’s a very interesting guy. I’m a big fan of him as a person and he’s very intense, very weird at times, and we had these really long kind of intense conversations about music, which I loved actually and I really felt like we connected…In a way it was kind of an experiment to get out of my comfort zone. To work with somebody who wasn’t a friend and who wasn’t on the scene and to do something different. I’m constantly amazed by the innate conservatism of most music fans. Every time I do anything, somebody somewhere goes ‘it’s not the same as the last thing he did.’ And I go ‘I know. That’s the f***ing point.’

His music is a personal journey, but the forthright nature and honest storytelling of the music make it compelling to listen to; and he displays a great ability to express sentiments that we often battle to define ourselves. And when we find someone who can tap into what we are feeling, the music becomes just as cathartic for us. Nevertheless, the naysayers still lurk around corners and Frank echoes my own outlook that we should stop moaning about music that we hate and listen to what we love, something which he has personal experience with. “Occasionally people will take time out of their busy day to send me an e-mail saying they hate what I do. And I always go, there’s more music in the world than one person will ever be able to listen to, and that’s without the idea of the fact that I want to listen to The River by Springsteen 400 times. And so if you’ve identified a corner of music you don’t like, brilliant! Fence it off, don’t listen to what I do. Carry on with your life.”

Regardless, he does not flinch at these reactions and is motivated by an incredible passion for music. “When I’m not on tour I go to gigs. I try and watch the support bands when we play, because I like music. A lot. In some ways I’m quite a boring person, because all I really care about it is rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t give a f**k about anything else. Not in any profound sense. You know I’ve got opinions about politics and about history and society and all that s**t but none of it really matters. But damn it I give a f**k about rock ‘n’ roll. I love it.”

Through his music and his easy-going nature he instantly develops a great rapport with those he encounters, whether on stage or off, and has denounced the word “fan” in the past. “I grew up with punk rock and that sense of being a community,” he explains, “and music being a dialogue between equals rather than a missive from the gods to the little people.” As always, his music stands as testimony and that evening he encourages that very dialogue with his song Photosynthesis: “now I’ll play and you sing. The perfect way for the evening to begin.”

Although Frank Turner is my favourite singer and I love his work, what affected me the most was reflecting on the context of his work. I can get vicious about the past, and how the results of history still manifest themselves today. So when we tackle the notion of being British, while certainly not assuaging my desire to know and tell stories of the forgotten, I am given the opportunity to see things from the other side as well. As a South African especially we should understand the futility of living in the past, being bitter and pigeon-holing others as a result. “I’m interested in my culture,” Frank says, “and I want to know about my culture. And I’m kind of annoyed that people want to shame me out of doing that. It’s that typical post-colonial white man’s guilt that anything to do with British culture must inherently be bad and a lot of people think and feel like that. And they’re entitled to do so and I wouldn’t for a second say that I think the opposite. There’s lots of awful, awful things done by my countrymen in history, but there were some good things too that I think are worth remembering.”

Taking these thoughts into account it is not surprising to see members of Fokofpolisiekar in the crowd that night,whose own music instilled meaning into an entire segment of their generation. I happen to be reading South African stories set after the Second Anglo-Boer War and that night am struck at the surrealism of listening to a South African (predominantly Afrikaans) crowd sing “if ever I stray from the path I follow, take me down to the English channel.” History may continue to plague us and, as the old adage goes, “we learn from history that man never learnt from history;” yet there is evidence that we have the ability to move on. This is precisely the encouragement that South Africa still needs. If the English and the Afrikaans can eventually come together, maybe our extant social divides will eventually close. So it seems, as Frank sings in I Still Believe, “that after all, something as simple as rock ‘n’ roll could save us all.”

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